Too high a price to pay Print E-mail
The Guardian -- London --  Saturday March 12 2005

Comment

The law against incitement to religious hatred will only strengthen
intolerance and choke off women's right to dissent
Rahila Gupta

It seems strange that the government should claim, at the point of
introducing a piece of legislation, that there are unlikely to be many
prosecutions under it. To the critics of the impending incitement to
religious hatred law this sounds like a non sequitur.

If not to prosecute anyone, what is the law meant to be for? If it is meant
to extend a hand of friendship to embattled Muslim communities, the
government would surely do better to tackle the poverty so many suffer, or
the low levels of educational attainment among their children, or to ensure
that its anti-terrorism legislation respects the human rights of those
people - mostly Muslims - interned under it. If the government expects the law to have a deterrent effect, then we must
ask whose voices will be silenced in the process. Not merely those of the
artistic community, but also the more vulnerable groups within religious
communities, like women, who may find the newly strengthened group rights
weaken their own position.

Under current race laws, which recognise Sikhs as a racial group, action
could not be taken over alleged incitement by members of the same community
- barring the possibility of action against the playright, Gurpreet Kaur
Bhatti. However, there has been much debate about whether internal-dissent
cases might fall foul of the new law. Would it have been the law rather than
the mob that switched off the lights at Birmingham Rep? Behzti raised issues
of corruption and sexual violence at the heart of a religious establishment:
a woman is raped in a gurdwara. Which bit gave offence? That it happened in
a gurdwara! Not that a woman was raped by a priest.

But the play dealt with recognisable realities, and it was the debate of
those realities that was stifled. Only last month a Hindu priest was jailed
for 12 years for raping a woman at a temple in Croydon. During the 90s,
there was the widely reported case of a Sikh woman in Southall, Sunita Vig,
who was raped by a Sikh priest. Another Sikh woman, a recent convert to
Hinduism, was sexually and physically assaulted by a Hindu priest who left
her with a near-fatal gash in her neck.

These are the more dramatic cases, but on a daily basis, women find their
aspirations quashed by religious leaders. They cannot leave oppressive homes
because of the stranglehold of culture, religion and enforced mediation by
religious leaders.

When Asian women first started exposing the underbelly of our communities,
we were told that we were providing ammunition for racists. For us it wasn't
a choice. We couldn't hide one evil to fight another. A community that sees
itself as under siege battens down the hatches. But when minorities ditch
race for religion as a marker of their identity, the pressures on women
increase a hundredfold. A "cultural" practice is difficult enough to
challenge but one which has been given the dubious honour of being ratified
by a holy book, open as that may be to interpretation, is even harder to
resist. Our choices are limited by our ascribed roles: as guardians of
sexual morality; transmitters of cultural values to the next generation; and
vessels bearing the honour of the community.

Women continue to fight from within their religion for their freedoms, but
meanwhile they look outwards to the state for protection - a state which has
historically appeased the unelected religious leaders of our community and
left the policing of women in their hands. Religious and cultural pressures
are an important part of the equation that keeps Asian women at the bottom
of the pile. The recent Fawcett report, Powerless, Poor and Passed Over,
confirmed the "massive inequalities" in health, education, employment and
political representation faced by Asian women.

Because the boundary between religious and racial identities has blurred,
some argue that free speech with regard to religion has to be restrained out
of respect for racial sensitivities. Some sections of the Sikh community
have lambasted the supporters of Behzti for revealing colonial attitudes in
their defence of free speech. It is true that western liberals use the
"lack" of free speech in minority cultures as a weapon against them. It is
also true that free thinking, secularism and free speech are associated with
western values.

However, harping on about the racism of the liberal establishment can become
an excuse for inaction in our own communities. This was exactly the kind of
polarisation that occurred during the Salman Rushdie debate which led to the
formation of Women against Fundamentalism. Then, as now, it was important to
challenge the racism of the liberal intelligentsia regarding "backward
Muslims". But, as women, we had to adopt a Janus-headed approach: then, as
now, we have to fight the authoritarian strands in our own communities too.
The very presence of the "incitement to religious hatred law", no matter how
it is worded, will strengthen the voices of religious intolerance and choke
off women's right to dissent. This is too high a price to pay to appease an
alienated community. Religion may be a central part of your identity and
culture, but at the end of the day it is a set of ideas. Any state policy
that privileges religion over all other systems of belief must be dismantled.

· Rahila Gupta has edited a collection of essays, From Homebreakers to
Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters, published by Zed Press.